Find more information about

at the Center for Jewish History:

NOTE: you will be redirected
to the Web site for the

Opotshinski, Perets

(ca. 1895–1943), Yiddish writer and journalist. Born in Lutomiersk (near Łódź) into a poor Hasidic family and orphaned at a young age, Perets Opotshinski (name also rendered Peretz Opoczinski) received only a traditional Jewish education in heder and at various yeshivas. In Kalisz, where he joined a circle of breakaway former yeshiva students, Opotshinski came under the spell of the Yiddish poet and enlisted soldier Osher Shvartsman, who convinced him to switch from Hebrew to Yiddish.

Drafted into the Russian army at the outbreak of World War I, Opotshinski was wounded and spent four years as a prisoner of war in Hungary. (None of his voluminous writings from that period was ever published.) After the war, he settled briefly in Kłodawa, where he worked as a Hebrew teacher and cobbler and met his future wife, Mindl Rzeszewska. The couple then moved to Łódź, where in 1927 Opotshinski became an active member of Po‘ale Tsiyon and began a successful career as a Yiddish journalist at the Lodzer tageblat (Łódź Daily; edited by Yeshaye Uger) and its weekly, Dos ilustrirte lodzer vokhnblat (The Illustrated Łódź Weekly). Opotshinski’s reportorial fiction, realistic eyewitness accounts of Hasidic life, of Polish Jewish poverty and spiritual decline, published under numerous pseudonyms, won him a mass readership. In 1935, he was invited to Warsaw to join the staff of the Yiddish daily Dos vort (The Word), published by Po‘ale Tsiyon. Among other assignments, in June 1937 Opotshinski covered the pogrom in Częstochowa.

Opotshinski’s singular contribution to Yiddish literature was not the one book he published in his lifetime, Navenad (Wandering; 1933; written in 1923), a confessional work written in a lyrical, neo-Hasidic style; nor the hundreds of sketches he published in the Yiddish press (only a fraction of which appear in his Gezamlte shriftn [Collected Works; 1951]); but the major corpus of reportage that he produced under assignment, working for Emanuel Ringelblum in the Warsaw ghetto. On the one hand, the Oyneg Shabes Archive kept him alive, not the pittance that he earned working for the Judenrät as a mail carrier. On the other hand, Opotshinski contracted typhus while conducting interviews on the archive’s behalf among the ghetto’s refugee population.

The courtyard at 21 Wołyńska Street, where Opotshinski lived, served as his microcosm of the ghetto. Among its 700 tenants crammed into fewer than 100 apartments, he found a ready-made cross section of professions and personalities, whose changing fortunes he followed for a two-year period from the outbreak of the war. In chronicling their lives, as in his other ghetto writings, Opotshinski records both the forces pulling away from the center, militating against solidarity—the hunger, disease, death, corruption, and varied forms of degradation—as well as the people’s humor and ability to withstand their circumstances.

Although an eyewitness, Opotshinski assiduously avoids autobiographical references, even in “Der yidisher brivtreger” (The Jewish Letter Carrier), based on bitter firsthand experience. Initially welcomed by the ghetto population as the first in Poland’s history, this ersatz civil servant eventually must not only bear witness to the people’s despair, but also admit his own inability to alleviate their sorrow. Writing within the traditions of classical Yiddish fiction, Opotshinski adopts the model of the shtetl as collective hero, especially in time of crisis. Thus, in his reportage “Der shmugl in varshever geto” (Smuggling in the Warsaw Ghetto), the implicit model of Kozia Alley—with its strict hierarchy of smugglers, middlemen, porters, and guards, who support “tens of thousands of Jews who even with money in their pocket would die of hunger if the alley did not serve as their granary”—is Sholem Asch’s famous Kola Street. Yiddish literature’s long-standing romance with the Jewish gangster, or bal-guf, as he is called, represents a well-thought-out ideological position. Whereas both the Hebrew pedagogue Ḥayim Kaplan and the ghetto’s Bundist leadership considered the smugglers to be scum of the earth, Ringelblum and his staff saw in them proof of Jewish atavism, vitality, and adaptability. Opotshinski also kept a diary during the Great Deportation in the summer of 1942. He is believed to have died in January 1943.

No complete edition of Opotshinski’s unique corpus has yet been published. Ber Mark’s edition, Reportazhn fun varshever geto (Reportage from the Warsaw Ghetto; 1954), is partial and censored. The fullest edition to date is Reshimot, edited by Tsevi Shner (1970). Other selections appear in Anthology of Holocaust Literature, edited by Yankev Glatshteyn and Israel Knox (1969); A Holocaust Reader, edited by Lucy S. Dawidowicz (1976); ToLive With Honor and Die With Honor!, edited by Josef Kermish (1986); and The Literature of Destruction: Jewish Responses to Catastrophe, edited by David G. Roskies (1989).

Suggested Reading

Rina Oper-Opoczinski, “Mayn bruder Perets Opotshinski,” in Gezamlte shriftn by Peretz Opoczinski, ed. Sh. Tenenboym (New York, 1951); Emanuel Ringelblum, “Oyneg Shabbes,” in The Literature of Destruction: Jewish Responses to Catastrophe, ed. David G. Roskies (Philadelphia, 1989); Tsevi Shner, “Ha-Reshimot u-meḥabran,” in Reshimot, by Peretz Opoczinski, trans. Avraham Yevin, pp. 257–267 (Tel Aviv, 1969/70).